Can Sin Crouch and can sin Desire?
Genesis 4:7 (ESV) “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
Literal Translation: “Will not, if you do good, to lift up? And if you do not do good, sin is laying at the door. And it’s longing is toward you, and you must rule over it.”
The question that was asked, is this passage simply personifying sin of does God’s word somehow suggest that sin is an entity which can act on its own volition? The simply answer to the question is that sin is being personified by God to emphasize the point that God is making with Cain. God wants Cain to truly understand the power that sin has over him, so the comparison that is being made is of a predator crouching in wait at the threshold of his home—ready to strike—and that it has a desire for Cain.
While the simple answer is that God is personifying sin for the sake of emphasis, perhaps the more interesting question is why might God have communicated in this way with Cain? To answer that question, we need to know something about what is literally being communicated.
First, as you can see above, the initial question, when translated literally, makes rather awkward and unintelligible English. And such is not overly unusual when going from one language to another—especially with idioms, so a few notes must be made up front. First of all, the Hebrew language often uses word order to add emphasis to those things that are found at the beginning of the sentence, though typically not as much so as Greek. In other words, what is being emphasized is God’s beginning question—“Won’t this take place…?” Oftentimes when my son has been disobedient, instead of just telling him that he was wrong, I will ask him a leading question so that he speaks the truth about his action. I might ask “Surely, you didn’t think that such and such was okay to do…,” and in doing so, add a great deal of emphasis on the word, “Surely.” Usually, when confronted in this way, my son responds by hanging his head and saying, “no, dad…” I think that the word order and structure of the initial question lends itself to this tone on the part of God. God knows that Cain knows right from wrong, God knows that Cain knows that he sinned, and God also knows that Cain knows that he needs to repent, but the leading question is designed to force Cain to respond properly—yet Cain’s heart is hardened and he refuses to repent.
The second thing that we need to note is the word af’n” (nasa), which means, “to lift up.” While this term broadly refers to picking or lifting up anything in particular, it is also sometimes used in a judicial sense to some being restored to favor before a king, as with the cupbearer being restored to his office in Genesis 40:13. That seems to be the context of its use in this particular pattern—if Cain does right (in this case, repenting of his heartless offering and make a proper offering, sacrificing what is first and best of his crops), then he will be forgiven. Thus, the concept that the ESV is seeking to capture as they translate this word as “be accepted” is this idea of Cain’s being restored to proper fellowship with God. Note too, that af’n” (nasa) is being used in it’s infinitive form, and thus carries with it no subject (as my translation above reflects), and though this makes awkward English, it is meant to remind us that in the repentance (doing what is good in God’s eyes), the process of lifting up—the process or legal restoration to his original position in the covenant community—takes place. Yet, of course, if he chooses what is not good, in comes sin.
This raises the issue with respect to what is “good” and what is the relationship between “good” and “sin.” The concept of “good” is understood in a number of ways, but in its absolute sense (from which we should derive our applications of the concept) only applies to God (Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19). Psalm 119:68 is the basis for this concept:
“You are good and you cause good to be;
teach me your statutes.”
Note the structure of this psalm. God is described as good—where the idea of “good” is functioning as a predicate nominative. In other words, “good” is being portrayed as part of God’s essential character and reciprocally, “good” cannot be defined apart from a discussion of God and who he is. The psalmist continues, though, by stating that not only is God good, but God’s work is good. This second use of the term good, moves from the adjectival use of the word Good (a reflection of God’s character) to the participial use of the term, reflecting his ongoing actions. In addition, the Hebrew uses the Hiphil stem of the verb in this case, which reflects causative action—in other words, God is the one who causes all good to come about.
One note that we need to make in relation to this is the way in which we use the term “good,” because even as Christians we rarely use it in its absolute sense. We often express the idea of good in relationship to our preferences, other people, or our general comfort. And while they are all legitimate uses of the term, “good,” the general term must derive its meaning from some sort of inviolable standard. God is the only one who can set such a standard. This, of course, provides a problem for unbelievers who reject God’s presence, but in rejecting God, to where will they turn for the measure of what is good? If they determine that preference determines the meaning of good, all intellectual interaction is reduced to meaningless babble—one can turn to the beginning of Genesis 11 to see what happens to a culture that cannot communicate with one another in any meaningful way. If the unbeliever looks outside of himself, to perhaps the state, for a standard for good, they are reduced to excusing Nazi Germany for their execution of millions of people, for those in government saw themselves as doing good for the German people. If you look to the Nuremburg trials, they defined good in terms of that which preserved life (though one might ask from where they adopted that absolute definition). Yet many who would advocate such a definition would also advocate abortions, which terminate the life of an unwanted baby. The unbeliever is reduced to an endless cycle of confusion and frustration unless he can appeal on some level to a supernatural standard, and then he has trapped himself in an unwanted contradiction. If you don’t accept God as being who he is—and being the source of the definition of good—then you cannot use the term in any meaningful sense. At the same time, this causes a great deal of practical difficulty for many Christians, because if you accept that God provides the absolute definition of what is good, we must define what is good on that basis, not on the basis of our own comfort or preferences—and that causes Romans 8:28 and similar passages to be taken in a very different light compared to how most Christians look at the passage. Thus, while God does work all things for my good, what is ultimately good for me is not my comfort, health, or financial blessing, but being conformed into the image of his Son, Jesus Christ.
So, for Cain to do good, he must repent from his sin—and in this case, sin stands as the direct opposite of good. The term we translate as “sin” in the Old Testament is taJ’x; (chattath), and is derived from the verb aj’x’ (chata), “to miss the mark” or “to fail to hit the target” (see Judges 20:16). And then, what are we missing when we sin? We are missing God’s perfect standard (Matthew 5:48). This, of course, is why we needed a redeemer who could come and live a perfect life on our behalf as well as to pay the debt we owed on account of sin (retributive justice). Thus sin is not an entity wandering about on its own, but it is the result of our failure to live up to God’s perfect standard—and willful sin, being that God has revealed his law, is an intentional missing of the standard, and is thus outward rebellion against God’s holy and good character.
There is one more note that we need to make on this passage, and that is of the language of “desire.” The Hebrew term employed in this verse is hq’WvT. (tishuqah), which refers to a “longing” or a “desire” for something. What is particularly interesting is that while this term is only used in two other places in the Old Testament, one of those places is in the previous chapter: Genesis 3:16 (the second other place is in Song of Solomon 7:10). What is also interesting about this is that in both of these cases (Genesis 3:16 and 4:7) the word lv;m’ (mashal) is used in conjunction with it. The verb lv;m’ (mashal) refers to ruling over something or someone. In both cases, the desire is defined as something that must be ruled over—in the first case, Adam ruling over Eve in spite of her desire for him (or for his position as many understand it) and in this case, Cain ruling over sin’s desire for him (or to destroy his relationship with God as part of the covenant community).
The reality is that the struggle with sin, while an inward spiritual struggle, is like wrestling against a wild beast seeking to destroy, but instead must be dominated and ruled over. Not only is God using this language to emphasize the urgency of Cain’s repentance, but also to communicate to us the very real battle that we face—one that is not a battle against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities and thus we must take up the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6:11-12).